Archive for the 'Teaching Matters' Category

A Good Pairing

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

Last week, I was working with a Shakespeare teacher who was looking for ways to help students better appreciate the language. He liked the idea of using song lyrics, and Usher’s “More” in particular. For easy reference, I reprint the excerpt and devices from the earlier post.

From “More” as performed by Usher
Written by Hinshaw, Khayat, and Raymond

Watch me as I dance under the spotlight-
Listen to the people screaming out more and more,
‘Coz I create the feeling that keep ‘em coming back,
Yeah, I create the feeling that keep ‘em coming back,
So captivating when I get it on the floor.

Know y’all been patiently waiting, I know you need me, I can feel it,
I’m a beast, I’m an animal, I’m that monster in the mirror,
The headliner, finisher, I’m the closer, winner.
Best when under pressure with seconds left I show up.

If you really want more, scream it out louder,
Get it on the floor, bring out the fire,
And light it up, take it up higher,
Gonna push it to the limit, give it more.

Literary devices

Repetition: “more and more,” “I create the feeling that keep ‘em coming back”

Rhyme: more/floor, fire/higher

Alliteration: “monster in the mirror,” create/coming/captivating

Assonance: “patiently waiting,” finisher/winner, Best/pressure/seconds, “limit/give it”

Lists: “I’m a beast, I’m an animal, I’m that monster in the mirror, the headliner, finisher, I’m the closer, winner.”

Antithesis: Get it on the floor/take it up higher

But then the question arose as to which passage from Shakespeare to use. When I used to do this activity using “Mosh,” I’d have students compare Eminem’s use of literary devices in the song to Shakespeare use of the same devices in the Prologue from Romeo and Juliet. But that text doesn’t use the same literary devices as “More,” so we needed another choice.

Et voilà!

Sonnet 130
by William Shakespeare

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Literary devices

Repetition: red, wires, roses

Rhyme: sun/dun, red/head, etc.

Alliteration: “I grant I never saw a goddess go,” “when she walks”

Assonance: “nothing like the sun,” “then her breasts,” “and yet, by heaven”

Lists: The whole poem, basically

Antithesis: The whole poem, basically

What’s nice about this selection is that many of the poetic devices are actually easier to identify in the Shakespeare, making the activity more likely to succeed in helping students connect with the language.

Shakespeare Teacher: your sonnet sommelier.

Don’t Be Rotten to the Core

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

I thought I’d take this opportunity, while the federal government is shut down over the question of its own power to legislate, to talk about another somewhat controversial initiative, namely the Common Core State Standards.

It should be noted that this is not a simple left-right issue. At a recent conference, I heard Kim Marshall joke that he never thought he’d see national standards because “the right doesn’t like national, and the left doesn’t like standards.” So, as you might expect, the Common Core seems to be embraced by moderates in both parties, while being attacked by extremists on both sides. Teachers and parents, who are the most directly affected by the changes, express the same range of opinions as policymakers and pundits. So, the discussion continues.

To get a sense of the issues involved, as well as the general tone, check out this New York Times editorial by Bill Keller, and this response by Susan Ohanian.

For the record, I agree with the Bill Keller editorial (you can just change that “K” into an “H” and we’re good). I’m a fan of the Common Core, though I have a number of concerns about the way it’s being implemented. But I respect the opinions of many who oppose it, and understand the quite valid reasons why they do. Unfortunately, most of the rhetoric that I encounter against the initiative is either focused on areas that have very little to do with the standards themselves, or are based in a fog of misinformation.

Now, if you’ve read the standards, and you honestly believe that we should not want our students to be able to cite evidence from informational texts to support an argument, I’m very willing to have that conversation. If you think the Common Core shifts aren’t the right direction for our students, I’m very willing to have that conversation. If you have a problem with emphasizing literacy in the content areas, I’m very willing to have that conversation. That’s just not the conversation I’ve been hearing about the Common Core, and if we’re going to discuss these very large-scale changes in the way they deserve to be discussed, we need to clear the air of distractions and distortions.

With that in mind, I present the Top Ten Most Common Objections to the Common Core, and my responses to them. This is meant to be the beginning of a conversation and not the last word, so please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments section below.

1. The Common Core is too rigorous. The standards are not developmentally appropriate.

I think we’re feeling that now because we’re transitioning into these standards from a less rigorous system. If students come in on grade level, what they’re being asked to learn in each year is very reasonable. The problem is that we’re so far from that “if,” that the standards can often seem very unreasonable. Add to that a rushed implementation, complete with career-destroying and school-closing accountability, and the Common Core expectations can leave a very bad taste in our mouths.

What’s more, the Common Core includes qualitative shifts as well as quantitative shifts, so students will be as unfamiliar with the new ways of learning as their teachers are. The good news is that each year we implement the Common Core, students will become more used to Common Core ideas such as text-based answers and standards of mathematical practice, and will be better prepared for the work of their grade each year. It will likely get worse before it gets better, but I do think there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it will at least become visible in the next year or two.

2. The Common Core is not rigorous enough. My state had better standards before.

Well, the standards are meant to represent only the minimum of where students need to be in their grade level in order to be on track for college and career readiness by the end of Grade 12. So if you can meet these standards and then exceed them, more power to you. States that adopt the Common Core are also free to change up to 15%, and to add additional standards as well.

So here in New York State, we added Pre-K standards that aren’t in the national version, we put in additional standards throughout the documents (including Responding to Literature standards in ELA and teaching money in early-grade math classrooms), and we still retain the state-wide content standards in social studies and science that students need to pass their Regents. And even where states are slacking, a high-performing school won’t suddenly lower their standards just because they can. That’s not how they became high-performing schools in the first place.

3. The Common Core is a mandated top-down program that infringes on state control of schools.

The Common Core is not mandated by the federal government. States can choose to adopt the Common Core or opt out. I hesitate to present the most blindingly obvious of proofs, but here we go: not all of the states adopted the standards. Some states chose to opt out. That should suffice as proof enough that states can choose to opt out if they want to.

Did the federal government sweeten the deal by adding Race to the Top incentives for states that adopted the Common Core? Yes. But that’s bribery, not coersion. You can say no to a bribe, even if you need the money. And this wasn’t even that much of a bribe, as everyone knew there were only going to be a limited number of states that won Race to the Top funding and Common Core adoption was far from a guarantee.

Whether you love or hate the Common Core, it was your state legislature that adopted the standards, and the credit or blame should be placed there. States are just as capable of having cynical self-serving politicians as the federal government is, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But some states may have genuinely adopted the Common Core to improve education for their students, even if you don’t think it will.

Frankly, I’m no more a fan of Race to the Top than I was of No Child Left Behind. I don’t think states should have to compete for education funding. And there were other incentives in the Race to the Top formula I had issues with, like the charter school expansions. But these are criticisms of federal education policy, and not the Common Core standards themselves.

4. The Common Core is a result of the corporate reform movement that’s undermining public education.

Maybe.

I don’t think the standards do undermine public education, though, and I believe the people who actually put them together are earnest in their attempts to improve it. I’m not blind to some of the strange bedfellows involved with the process, but if an idea leads to good things, I don’t care where it comes from. This is an argument that just doesn’t work on its own. Just because Bill Gates funded it, it isn’t necessarily Windows 7. Zing!

5. The Common Core is only about testing and accountability.

I hate to break it to you, but the testing and accountability movement has been around a lot longer than the Common Core. We’re already teaching to the test, so it makes sense to design a better test, one worth teaching to. You can read about early attempts to align New York’s state-wide exams to the Common Core in this article, and I’m quoted towards the end, but the bottom line is that they didn’t go very well.

Two multi-state consortiums are now hard at work to build a better test, though this turns out to be a tougher job than they originally thought. They are talking about having students take the state-wide (actually, consortium-wide) tests on computers, which means that every school needs to have computers. That could be a logistical nightmare in itself, but it could also mean more funding for computers in schools.

In New York City, teachers are being evaluated through a system that uses test scores, in one form or another, as 40% of a teacher’s score, while the other 60% will be based on the Danielson Framework. In my opinion, that’s a vast improvement over using test scores alone, which even the Gates-funded MET study doesn’t endorse.

6. The Common Core is a conspiracy to keep the poor uneducated.

No, that’s what we have now. There is a strong correlation between socioeconomic status and academic achievement. Having a set of common standards is one step in the process of attempting to close that gap.

7. The Common Core replaces literature with government manuals.

That simply isn’t true. There is an entire section of the standards that covers Reading Literature. There may be a government manual listed somewhere in the examples of informational texts, but it’s disingenuous to hold that up as the centerpiece of Common Core expectations for student reading. Anyone who makes this argument is either unfamiliar with the standards, or uninterested in engaging in a serious discussion about them.

8. People are making money from the Common Core!

This is true, in as much as we need people to write tests, publish classroom materials, and train teachers. But we would have needed this anyway, Common Core or no.

Liberals tend to think that everyone should do their jobs with the purest of motives, and if someone’s profiting from something, it must be an evil conspiracy. Conservatives tend to believe the opposite: that if you made money from an idea, then that proves the idea had market value, and those who improve the system deserve to profit from their innovations. I take a more neutral view of profit’s correlation with good in the world. I work in teacher training, and the Common Core affects what I teach, but not how often I teach or how much money I make. I have no financial interest in defending the Common Core.

Keller’s editorial estimates the costs of the new tests at about $29 per student, in a system that spends over $9,000 per student in a year. You might not like the Common Core for other reasons, but cost alone can’t be the only reason to oppose it.

9. These Common Core-aligned materials I have are bad.

I don’t doubt it. But just because a product claims to be “Common Core-aligned,” it doesn’t mean that it is Common Core-endorsed. I have no end of problems with the range of “Common Core-aligned” curricula being rolled out by New York City alone. This is not a function of poor standards, but rather poor implementation.

By the way, a lot of the Common Core-aligned materials were delayed getting into schools this year, even as teachers were required to start using them. You don’t have to convince me that we’re having implementation problems.

And I spent last summer modifying my own organization’s social studies curricula to be Common Core-aligned, and I feel strongly that our products improved immensely because of it.

10. The Common Core is untested, and shouldn’t be implemented on such a large scale without a pilot program.

This is from Reign of Error author Diane Ravitch, and she makes a fair point. But nothing’s written in stone. The standards will work in some ways and need mending in others. And where they need mending, we’ll mend them. Ten years from now, we may come to see the current version of the Common Core as a really good first draft. Or we may remember it as New Coke. There’s no way to know until we try it out. That can be used as an argument for it as well as against it.

I do think that we should do everything we can do to make it work. That’s the only way we’ll really know if it doesn’t.

Honorable Mention: President Obama is for it, and therefore I must be against it.

Hey, look! Someone over there is getting health care.

I really do see a lot of parallel between the Affordable Care Act debacle and the Common Core controversy. Tea party Republicans want to talk about how Obamacare will destroy the economy and force the government between you and your doctor and lead to the apocalypse, but they really oppose it on ideological principles. If they would talk about their principles, we could have an honest debate, but they know these principles sound cold and selfish, so they obfuscate. Common Core opponents dance around the actual changes being made in education because most of them make sense. The real concern, as I see it, is the danger of the larger corporate-funded movement to use testing and data to prove the ineffectiveness of public education in order to move to a privatized free-market system.

That’s a concern worth discussing directly, and I’m very willing to have that conversation.

Question of the Week

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

So, today was my birthday.

People always seem to want to know how you spent your birthday. Frankly, it’s just another day to me, so it doesn’t bother me that I spent much of it preparing for a workshop tomorrow.

The workshop is going to be on the Danielson Framework for Teaching, a 22-component system for evaluating teacher effectiveness. Last year, New York City was using three of these components, and we all had to learn them inside out. This year, we’ll be using all 22, and everyone is scrambling to catch up.

Over the next two days, my job will be to train all of the teachers in one high school on the extremely comprehensive criteria on which they will be judged.

I did some trainings on the Framework over the summer. Teachers approach it with skepticism, as experience has taught them to be cautious of new initiatives. Added to this is the reasonable perception that the system can often be hostile to teachers. But once we actually delved into the measures, the teachers generally agreed that they are fair, assuming the evaluations are implemented fairly.

I’m guessing that the Danielson Framework will be a very important part of my life between now and my next birthday, so I should say a few words about it. The 22 components are organized in four domains:

Domain 1: Planning and Preparation
Domain 2: The Classroom Environment
Domain 3: Instruction
Domain 4: Professional Responsibilities

New York City is using the ratings based on the Framework as a portion of overall teacher evaluation, and Domains 2 and 3 will be 75% of that portion.

As an interesting side note, I was in Pennsylvania visiting my sister last week, and I happened to be there on the day that the kids were assigned their teachers. Parents were texting and calling each other like mad trying to determine who got what teacher and how the classes would be made up.

Out of curiosity, I asked my sister what parents look for when they decide what teachers they want their children to have. She listed a number of qualities that mainly fall into Domain 2. I asked her if parents in her community care about how much test scores improved for the class the teacher had the previous year. They couldn’t care less.

So that’s not a scientific study, but it is an enlightening data point. As we head back to school, I’d love to turn the question over to the Shakespeare teacher community.

When you send your own children back to school, what do you look for in a teacher?

Science!

Monday, January 7th, 2013

Today, I worked with science teachers on their performance tasks. Actually, I’ve been doing a lot of consulting this year on performance tasks, which is the hot new trend in assessment.

A performance task is an opportunity for students to demonstrate that they can independently apply the skills they’ve learned in a real-world context. So it’s like a post-test, only instead of multiple-choice questions, students have to do an authentic activity. Teachers examine the resulting student work with a rubric to measure whether or not students have learned the skills, and they can then use this information to plan future instruction. It’s much more effective than standardized-testing data in diagnosing student needs, though I do admit it is much more time-consuming.

This year, I’ve been working a lot with social studies and science teachers. Because of the Common Core shifts, these teachers are now required to teach literacy skills. There are no actual content standards in social studies or science in the Common Core; all of the standards for these subject areas are literacy standards. There are science content standards currently under development by Next Generation. When they are completed, states will have the option of adopting them in the same way they adopted Common Core. But until then, science content standards come from the states, and literacy standards from the Common Core are applied across the curriculum.

Now, I actually like the idea of literacy across the curriculum, but it is a big adjustment for science and social studies teachers, and so the schools where I consult have asked me to work with these teachers to help them infuse literacy skills into their curriculum and their assessments, particularly the performance tasks that New York City is requiring them to administer this year.

I have had a lot of experience working with social studies teachers in the past, but I’m probably working more with science teachers this year than I ever have before. And that’s fantastic, because I get the opportunity to learn a lot of new things. I also get the chance to yell “Science!” like Magnus Pyke a lot. No, I don’t really do that, but it would be fun.

One of the science teachers I worked with today swears by a website for an organization called Urban Advantage. It has some great resources for teaching middle-school science with an inquiry-based approach. I like the way that their materials scaffold scientific writing, which is my focus this year.

Another science teacher I worked with today showed me the PhET website, which has some really compelling interactive simulations in the sciences. I watched 7th-grade students run a simulation on density, in which they had to determine the mass and volume of various mystery substances and identify them from a list of materials and their densities.

Science!

Blog Log

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

Last week, I participated in a blogging project sponsored by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, who encouraged bloggers to post about the influence Shakespeare has had on our lives. They’ve linked up all of our contributions on one page, and it’s worth checking out. Whether you’re a fan of Shakespeare or not, it’s exciting to read people who are passionate about something writing about how they became passionate about it.

Also, be sure to check out this fantastic song parody from Bardfilm. I missed it among all the birthday excitement, but found again via a nod from the Shakespeare Geek.

In post-birthday blogging news, I’ve been asked to write a monthly post on using data for school improvement for both the company I work for and our partner organization. If you want to get a glimpse into what I actually do for a living – anagramming passages from Shakespeare doesn’t pay what it should – check out my first installment here or here.

It’s a Poor Workman Who Blames Yogi Berra: Artificial Intelligence and Jeopardy!

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Last week, an IBM computer named Watson beat Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the two greatest Jeopardy! players of all time, in a nationally televised event. The Man vs. Machine construct is a powerful one (I’ve even used it myself), as these contests have always captured progressive imaginations. Are humans powerful enough to build a rock so heavy, not even we can lift it?

Watson was named for Thomas J. Watson, IBM’s first president. But he could just as easily have been named after John B. Watson, the American psychologist who is considered to be the father of behaviorism. Behaviorism is a view of psychology that disregards the inner workings of the mind and focuses only on stimuli and responses. This input leads to that output. Watson was heavily influenced by the salivating dog experiments of Ivan Pavlov, and was himself influential in the operant conditioning experiments of B.F. Skinner. Though there are few strict behaviorists today, the movement was quite dominant in the early 20th century.

The behaviorists would have loved the idea of a computer playing Jeopardy! as well as a human. They would have considered it a validation of their theory that the mind could be viewed as merely generating a series of predictable outputs when given a specific set of inputs. Playing Jeopardy! is qualitatively different from playing chess. The rules of chess are discrete and unambiguous, and the possibilities are ultimately finite. As Noam Chomsky argues, language possibilities are infinite. Chess may one day be solved, but Jeopardy! never will be. So Watson’s victory here is a significant milestone.

Much has been made of whether or not the contest was “fair.” Well, of course it wasn’t fair. How could that word possibly have any meaning in this context. There are things computers naturally do much better than humans, and vice versa. The question instead should have been in which direction would the unfairness be decisive. Some complained that the computer’s superior buzzer speed gave it the advantage, but buzzer speed is the whole point.

Watson has to do three things before buzzing in: 1) understand what question the clue is asking, 2) retrieve that information from its database, and 3) develop a sufficient confidence level for its top answer. In order to achieve a win, IBM had to build a machine that could do those things fast enough to beat the humans to the buzzer. Quick reflexes are an important part of the game to be sure, but if that were the whole story, computers would have dominated quiz shows decades ago.

To my way of thinking, it’s actually the comprehensive database of information that gives Watson the real edge. We may think of Ken and Brad as walking encyclopedias, but that status was hard earned. Think of the hours upon hours they must have spent studying classical composers, vice-presidential nicknames, and foods that start with the letter Q. Even a prepared human might temporarily forget the Best Picture Oscar winner for 1959 when the moment comes, but Watson never will. (It was Ben-Hur.)

In fact, given what I could see, Watson’s biggest challenge seemed to be understanding what the clue was asking. To avoid the complications introduced by Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiement, we’ll adopt a behaviorist, pragmatic definition of “understanding” and take it to mean that Watson is able to give the correct response to a clue, or at least a reasonable guess. (After all, you can understand a question and still get it wrong.) Watching the show on television, we are able to see Watson’s top three responses, and his confidence level for each. This gives us remarkable insight into the machine’s process, allowing us a deeper level of analysis.

A lot of my own work lately has been in training school-based data inquiry teams how to examine testing data to learn where students need extra help, and that work involves examining individual testing items. So naturally, when I see three responses to a prompt, I want to figure out what they mean. In this case, Watson was generating the choices rather than simply choosing among them, but that actually makes them more helpful in sifting through his method.

One problem I see a lot in schools is that students are often unable to correctly identify what kind of answer the question is asking for. In as much as Watson has what we would call a student learning problem, this is it. When a human is asked to come up with three responses to a clue, all of the responses would presumably be of the correct answer type. See if you can come up with three possible responses to this clue:

Category: Hedgehog-Pogde
Clue: Hedgehogs are covered with quills or spines, which are hollow hairs made stiff by this protein

Watson correctly answered Keratin with a confidence rating of 99%, but his other two answers were Porcupine (36%) and Fur (8%). I would have expected all three candidate answers to be proteins, especially since the words “this protein” ended the clue. In many cases, the three potential responses seemed to reflect three possible questions being asked rather than three possible answers to a correct question, for example:

Category: One Buck or Less
Clue: In 2002, Eminem signed this rapper to a 7-figure deal, obviously worth a lot more than his name implies

Ken was first to the buzzer on this one and Alex confirmed the correct response, both men pronouncing 50 Cent as “Fiddy Cent” to the delight of humans everywhere. Watson’s top three responses were 50 Cent (39%), Marshall Mathers (20%), and Dr. Dre (14%). This time, the words “this rapper” prompted Watson to consider three rappers, but not three potential rappers that could have been signed by Eminem in 2002. It was Dr. Dre who signed Eminem, and Marshall Mathers is Eminem’s real name. So again, Watson wasn’t considering three possible answers to a question; he was considering three possible questions. And alas, we will never know if Watson would have said “Fiddy.”

It seemed as though the more confident Watson was in his first guess, the more likely the second and third guesses would be way off base:

Category: Familiar Sayings
Clue: It’s a poor workman who blames these

Watson’s first answer Tools (84%) was correct, but his other answer candidates were Yogi Berra (10%) and Explorer (3%). However Watson is processing these clues, it isn’t the way humans do it. The confidence levels seemed to be a pretty good predictor of whether or not a response was correct, which is why we can forgive Watson his occassional lapses into the bizarre. Yeah, he put down Toronto when the category was US Cities, but it was a Final Jeopardy, where answers are forced, and his multiple question marks were an indicator that his confidence was low. Similarly cornered in a Daily Double, he prefaced his answer with “I’ll take a guess.” That time, he got it right. I’m just looking into how the program works, not making excuses for Watson. After all, it’s a poor workman who blames Yogi Berra.

But the fact that Watson interpreted so many clues accurately was impressive, especially since Jeopardy! clues sometimes contain so much wordplay that even the sharpest of humans need an extra moment to unpack what’s being asked, and understanding language is our thing. Watson can’t hear the the other players, which means he can’t eliminate their incorrect responses when he buzzes in second. It also means that he doesn’t learn the correct answer unless he gives it, which makes it difficult for him to catch on to category themes. He managed it pretty well, though. After stumbling blindly through the category “Also on Your Computer Keys,” Watson finally caught on for the last clue:

Category: Also on Your Computer Keys
Clue: Proverbially, it’s “where the heart is”

Watson’s answers were Home is where the heart is (20%), Delete Key (11%), and Elvis Presley quickly changed to Encryption (8%). The fact that Watson was considering “Delete Key” as an option means that he was starting to understand that all of the correct responses in the category were also names of keys on the keyboard.

Watson also is not emotionally affected by game play. After giving the embarrassingly wrong answer “Dorothy Parker” when the Daily Double clue was clearly asking for the title of a book, Watson just jumped right back in like nothing had happened. A human would likely have been thrown by that. And while Alex and the audience may have laughed at Watson’s precise wagers, that was a cultural expectation on their part. There’s no reason a wager needs to be rounded off to the nearest hundred, other than the limitations of human mental calculation under pressure. This wasn’t a Turing test. Watson was trying to beat the humans, not emulate them. And he did.

So where does that leave us? Computers that can understand natural language requests and retrieve information accurately could make for a very interesting decade to come. As speech recognition improves, we might start to see computers who can hold up their end of a conversation. Watson wasn’t hooked up to the Internet, but developing technologies could be. The day may come when I have a bluetooth headset hooked up to my smart phone and I can just ask it questions like the computer on Star Trek. As programs get smarter about interpreting language, it may be easier to make connections across ideas, creating a new kind of Web. One day, we may even say “Thank you, Autocorrect.”

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that these will be human achievements. Humans are amazing. Humans can organize into complex societies. Humans can form research teams and develop awesome technologies. Humans can program computers to understand natural language clues and access a comprehensive database of knowledge. Who won here? Humanity did.

Ken Jennings can do things beyond any computer’s ability. He can tie his shoes, ride a bicycle, develop a witty blog post comparing Proust translations, appreciate a sunset, write a trivia book, raise two children, and so on. At the end of the tournament, he walked behind Watson and waved his arms around to make it look like they were Watson’s arms. That still takes a human.

UPDATE: I’m told (by no less of an authority than Millionaire winner Ed Toutant) that Watson was given the correct answer at the end of every clue, after it was out of play. I had been going crazy wondering where “Delete Key” came from, and now it makes a lot more sense. Thanks, Ed!

Item of the Week

Monday, January 17th, 2011

In this somewhat new blog feature, I will offer up a question from the statewide examinations that New York City students take each year. The purpose of this will not be for you to try to provide the correct answer, but rather to join me in examining the question. What does it tell us about student understanding? What do each of the wrong answers mean? What is this question testing? What is it really testing? What would students need to know and be able to do to answer this question correctly?

I gave a workshop for data teams on Friday. Three of the groups were examining last year’s 4th grade ELA scores, which I knew meant that we’d be talking about Abigail. In my visits to schools, I’ve found that students who took this exam had a lot of trouble on questions relating to this poem (click to enlarge):

Students had trouble on a number of the questions, but we will just look at one: Item 21 on the 2010 New York State Grade 4 ELA Exam:



The intended performance indicator is “Make predictions, draw conclusions, and make inferences about events and characters,” but we can be the judge of that.

What is this question testing? Does it fit the performance indicator? Which of the wrong answers would you predict students would choose the most often? Why? What would students need to know and be able to do to answer this question correctly?

Question of the Week

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

Last month, I was giving a workshop for principals on Instructional Rounds, a method of structuring conversations about best practices based on classroom observations conducted in teams, when an interesting question arose. I asked them if teaching was an art or a science.

In this context, it was more than just a philosophical question. If teaching is an art, like music or painting, then each teacher should be allowed as much freedom and creativity as possible in developing a personal teaching style. If, on the other hand, teaching is a science, like medicine or physics, then we must determine best practices through research and establish standards and methodologies for the profession that all are expected to follow.

Carol Ann Tomlinson calls teaching a science-informed art, an answer the group liked, but I’d like to take a closer look at the question. The way we view the profession affects everything from how we train teachers to how we evaluate their performance. So is it an art, or is it a science?

Perhaps the distinction between the two isn’t as clear-cut as we think. Teaching may be a “science-informed art,” but what art hasn’t been influenced by the sciences? Each artistic discipline codifies what works and what doesn’t, and even the most promising young talents must study for many years to perfect their craft. There are certainly examples of highly successful art forms and artists that are defined largely by breaking the rules, like jazz or Picasso, but even they are influenced by science. Would Picasso’s “Blue Period” have been possible if Heinrich Diesbach hadn’t developed an affordable blue paint? And you can’t just play anything you like in improvisational jazz; you really have to know what you’re doing. In other words, it doesn’t mean a thing if it hasn’t got that swing.

Science, on the other hand, has a lot more intuition and creativity than it generally gets credit for. It comforts us to think of medicine as a hard science, but a lot of times doctors just have to go with their best instincts. I may have seen too many episodes of House, but let me ask you this: If you had to go in for surgery, would you prefer a young surgeon who recently graduated from a top medical school with a high GPA, or would you prefer a doctor with 25 years of experience doing this kind of surgery with a high success rate? And the most creative, mind-blowing stuff we’ve seen lately is coming out of the field of theoretical physics. Einstein famously said that imagination was more important than knowledge, and we have more knowledge because of his imagination.

So in deciding if teaching is an art or a science, we have to look at art and science for what they really are: two ends of a continuum, rather than binary opposites. But where on the continuum does teaching belong? The term “Instructional Rounds” borrows its name from the medical profession. But others refer to a similar activity as a “Gallery Walk” which takes its title from the arts.

There is, of course, a third option that falls outside of this continuum. In this option, teaching is neither an art nor a science, as each word implies a skilled and knowledgeable practitioner. It is simply a trade, one that can be standardized and learned. In this view, teaching is not a profession at all. I reject this idea, but it becomes part of the conversation nevertheless. And so, I bring back the Question of the Week by asking you this:

Is teaching an art or a science?

Blended Learning

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

I’ve just added a new category called “Blended Learning” which is something I’ll likely be writing about in the next few months. Blended learning, for us, will refer to a learning model that consists of any combination of traditional face-to-face instruction with technology-enabled learning that takes place outside of the regularly structured school day.

The reason that I’ll be writing about this is that I’m currently working with a school that is part of the NYC Connected Learning program. All of the 6th grade students in the school have been given desktop computers to take home, as well as free broadband access to the Internet. The school is already using the Moodle online learning management system, so we have a real opportunity to leverage this powerful tool to extend learning beyond the school day.

I am currently setting up an online classroom for a 6th grade class on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. The space is private for the students and other invited members of the school community. I can post documents, links, and message boards for the students. I will have limited opportunities to work with them in person, so this will truly be a blended learning model. I may also be setting up an online classroom for 8th grade students studying As You Like It who I may not even be working with in person at all. (This would still count as blended learning, as they would be studying the play in class.)

Do you have any suggestions about what I should include in the online classrooms?

Shakespeare Teacher: The Book!

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

I am proud to announce that I have recently published a chapter in this book on teaching literature through technology. You can ignore the description; it seems to have been inadvertently switched with that of this book. Neither page describes my chapter, but you can read the abstract on the publisher’s page, or I could just tell you what it’s about.

Unlike this blog, the book chapter is actually about teaching Shakespeare! No riddles. No anagrams. No politics. (Well, maybe a little bit of politics.)

Here is the basic idea. I begin by citing experts who are skeptical of the ability of elementary school students to do Shakespeare. Specifically, I discuss the Dramatic Age Stages chart created by Richard Courtney.

Courtney describes “The Role Stage” as lasting from ages twelve to eighteen, at which point students are capable of a number of new skills that I would consider essential for understanding Shakespeare in a meaningful way. These skills include the ability to think abstractly, to understand causality, to interpret symbols, to articulate moral decisions, and to understand how a character relates to the rest of the play. So based on this chart, I would have to conclude that a student younger than twelve would not be ready to appreciate Shakespeare in these ways.

But Courtney bases his chart on the framework of developmental phases of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. These phases describe what a lone child can demonstrate under testing conditions. A more accurate and nuanced way of looking at development is provided in the work of Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who described a “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD), which is a range between what a child can demonstrate in isolation, and what the same child can do under more social conditions.

So I wondered if fifth-grade students (aged 10) would have some of the skills associated with “The Role Stage” somewhere in their ZPD. If so, a collaborative class project should provide enough scaffolding to develop those skills and allow ten-year-old students to understand and appreciate Shakespeare on that level.

So I developed and implemented a unit to teach Macbeth to a fifth-grade class in the South Bronx, using process-based dramatic activities, a stage production of the play performed for their school, and a web-based study guide to apply what they had learned. The idea was to use collaborative projects to get the kids to work together to make collective sense of the play. I then examined their written work for evidence that they had displayed the skills associated with “The Role Stage” in Courtney’s chart, and I was able to find a great deal of it.

I also create a three-dimensional rubric to assess the students’ work over the course of the unit. I say a three-dimensional rubric because I use the same eight categories in all three rubrics, but they develop over time to reflect the increased sophistication that I expect the students to demonstrate. I then compare the students’ performance-based rubric scores to their reading test scores to demonstrate that standardized testing paints only a very limited picture of what a student can achieve. (I did say that it had a little bit of politics.)

Anyway, that’s what my chapter was about. I just saved you $180! And I’m hoping to return to a regular blogging schedule soon, so more content is hopefully on the way.